The mountain ranges that tower between British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and the rest of Canada are vast, beautiful and dangerous. The highways and railways traversing the province – over high mountain passes and through narrow valleys – are marvels of engineering.
These vital transportation links helped the Port of Vancouver, the busiest in the country by a factor of four, move a long list of goods (grains and fertilizers out, electronics and household items in) worth $240-billion this past year.
That flow of trade was brought to a halt last weekend, when a historic storm smashed B.C. and a torrent of rain from an atmospheric river unleashed widespread floods and landslides. It cut off every highway and railway in and out of the Vancouver region.
Now, after the brunt of the storm has receded, it becomes clear the flow of trade and of people between B.C. and the rest of Canada will not fully return to normal any time soon. This blow lands as global and domestic supply chains are already under immense strain thanks to the pandemic. The consequences of the B.C. disaster will be felt across Canada.
The primary route by road is the Coquihalla Highway, the only four-lane link. At several points, half the highway is destroyed. There is at least one section where all four lanes are wrecked, bridges snapped in two. Even temporary repairs, the province said late Thursday, will take months.
The old Trans-Canada Highway also has several sections where the road is gone. Highway 99, north of Whistler, suffered landslides, but even in good weather it can’t feasibly move large commercial trucks.
The only way in and out, for a while, will be Highway 3, mostly a two-lane highway that bounces up and down along the Canada-United States border, through difficult terrain.
It was damaged but not cut in two, and could open on Sunday – to heavily restricted traffic. The B.C. government has declared a state of emergency, in part to limit travel, but moving all heavy commercial traffic on Highway 3 will be slow going.
Winter storms could also be problematic. Snow-clearing equipment from elsewhere will have to be moved to Highway 3. “We cannot have that route closed,” Dave Earle, head of the BC Trucking Association, told this page on Thursday.
Another emergency option is rerouting Canadian trucks through the U.S., through Washington State and possibly into Alberta.
The main rail lines run through the Fraser Canyon, the Trans-Canada Highway route. Rail is damaged but does not appear to be severed. There’s hope trains could move again next week – no concrete timelines had been offered as of Thursday afternoon – but some shipping officials worry closures could extend for multiple weeks.
Then there’s the Trans Mountain oil pipeline. It runs along the Coquihalla and is shut down, as is work on the expansion project. The pipeline delivers most of the Lower Mainland’s oil, but there are options to get it from elsewhere. Still, the expansion that was supposed to open this time next year will likely be delayed. Crews cannot access some sites, and parts of the existing underground pipeline are now exposed, the earth washed away, and could be hit by more landslides.
Beyond all the broken infrastructure, there is the human toll. Deaths, thankfully, have been limited. But the lives of thousands of people are in disarray. The entire City of Merritt, about 5,000 people, is evacuated because of flood and the failure of the wastewater treatment plant. In and around Abbotsford, some of Canada’s best farmland, thousands of animals are dead and large amounts of agricultural and other important infrastructure is damaged. The mayor of Abbotsford on Thursday estimated $1-billion in costs.
The storm hit in B.C. but fixing the extensive damage is of national importance. The storm’s severity exposed how tenuous the country’s essential east-west infrastructure connections are. Canada’s supply chain has suffered another blow during one of the busiest times of the year, and it will not be back to normal by Christmas.
A concerted provincial and national response is necessary, to first patch and then repair the many locations lying in ruin, the Coquihalla most of all. The highway was only opened in the mid-1980s – a reflection of the challenging terrain it crosses. An army-like effort is needed to reopen it and then buttress the highway to be more robust against climate heating. The work must be a national priority.
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